Disappointing: An iPod and the Infocast

Last week I discussed the problem with my new iPod Touch not restoring properly despite me doing everything short of reprogramming it with an axe. It turns out that the device has a hardware problem. How disappointing.

To find this out, I called Apple customer service, navigated through their short and surprisingly effective interactive voice response system (that actually worked!), then spoke to a customer service rep who I could understand, who didn't thank me for every word I uttered, and who, once she knew I had a clue, didn't slavishly follow a script for handling n00bs. She asked me to hold for a minute, came back on, and told me to go to my local Apple store where it would be replaced. Amazing!

This was some of the very best customer service I've had for a long time. Well done Apple for seriously exceeding my expectations!

So, I'm impressed with Apple customer service but disappointed that my new iPod Touch is a gorgeous brick. Perhaps I can be impressed with some other piece of hardware …

OK, remember the Chumby? There was a lot of hoo-ha about this little wireless device for running widgets when it appeared in 2006 at O'Reilly's Foo Camp invitation-only hacker event. The original incarnation of Chumby was eccentric to say the least: It was embedded in a beanbag.

While the hardware schematics and software were made freely available and developers were actively encouraged to create software, the design was never released under true open source license terms. Even so, a lot of enthusiasm revolved around the platform.

The Chumby system is based on a Linux kernel and applications are "widget-like", that is, they are small programs that provide very narrow functionality such as alarm clocks, news feed readers, Twitter clients, Internet camera viewers, and so forth. These widgets are all downloaded from the Chumby Network.   

The original Chumby also had pressure sensors in its beanbag housing allowing the device to detect being squeezed so you could, for example, switch off an alarm with a well-placed blow.

Fast forward to the end of 2010: The Chumby design has been licensed to a number of companies which have attempted to build on this platform. One of those companies, Insignia, just sent me their version, an 8" Infocast Internet Media Display.

Having forsaken the beanbag garb of its forebear, the Internet Media Display, priced at around $100, looks like any of the larger digital picture frames on the market sporting, as it does, an eight inch 800 pixel by 600 pixel touch screen surrounded by a wide bezel.

The Infocast based on a Linux 2.6 kernel and running on a Marvell ARMADA 168 800MHz processor uses 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi. It has an integrated microphone, SRS audio, and 2GB of internal storage.

There's a single control button on the top of the frame, slots for CF and SD, SDHC, MMC, CF, xD, Memory Stick, and Memory Stick Pro Duo cards, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left and right of the base, and a power button on the back below the built-in speakers and two USB connectors. All in all, this is a fairly generic, unassuming design with pretty good connectivity options.

The Infocast can play MP3, WAV, DRM-free WMA and ACC audio files, display JPEG, AVI, QuickTime, MPEG, MPEG-4, MPEG-4 H.264 and Flash Video images and video and includes widgets for Pandora, Photobucket, SHOUTcast Radio, The New York Times, an alarm clock, a music player, a photo viewer and a video player.

I wanted to like this device, I really did. The concept of information appliances that are cheap, flexible, provide lots of functionality, and can be tailored to your needs is great! But two things make the Insignia Infocast disappointing. The first is that you can't help but compare it to a smartphone or, if you're going up-market, the iPad.

Yes, I know that neither of those are a fair comparison because the iPad starts at five times the price and a smartphone at maybe double the price, but it's the slickness and sheer gloss of those devices that have defined, at least for me, how something that delivers information should behave and appear. The Infocast just looks clumsy in comparison.

The second thing is that the Infocast's engineering is disappointing. Starting the Infocast takes a surprisingly long time while the touch screen requires way too much pressure to sense your finger and the responsiveness of the graphical user interface (GUI) feels sluggish. Oh, and the Infocast has locked up on several occasions: It just froze for no apparent reason on a moon phase display widget and had to be powered off to restart.

Also in the disappointing engineering category is the wireless networking. The Infocast I have is within three feet of the access point yet it has lost its network connection half a dozen times in the last month for no good reason and takes far too long to reestablish a connection. And when it does get connected, the Infocast insists on displaying the technical details (this should be invisible unless there's a problem) of its connection rather than just getting on with what it's supposed to do.

The Infocast's display quality is OK but the actual design of the GUI looks like it was done with a knife and fork; no polish, no pizzazz.

There's also apparently a bug that prevents the Infocast from displaying any image in any format from any device on my network. For example, the Infocast can see my Synology Diskstation and I can use the Infocast to navigate the folder hierarchy, but the Infocast displays a broken file icon for every image. What is particularly odd is that in the lower right of each icon there's a green check mark despite the icon indicating that there's something wrong with the file. If you click on the icon the green check changes to a red "x", for no apparent reason. That's just plain silly.

The Infocast Internet Media Display is hard to fathom as a commercial proposition. It's not user friendly, it's not easy to use, it appears to have bugs, and its visual presentation is unimpressive. I'm giving the Insignia 8" Infocast Internet Media Display the first one out of five ever awarded in Gearhead.

Gibbs is rarely this disappointed in Ventura, Calif. Tell gearhead@gibbs.com what's left you cold.

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.

This story, "Disappointing: An iPod and the Infocast" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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